A proposed “digital age of consent” under which online services could not allow children to sign up without parental approval should be set at 13, the special rapporteur for child protection has said.
Dr Geoffrey Shannon addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality on Wednesday during the final session of prelegislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Data Protection Bill 2017.
The proposed legislation must be in place by May next year to give effect to the new EU General Data Protection Regulation and an associated directive on sharing data for law-enforcement purposes.
The regulation specifies conditions applicable to the processing of the personal data of children in the context of their usage of so-called information society services, which include gaming and social media.
It imposes an obligation on providers of online goods and services to obtain the consent or authorisation of their parent or guardian where the child is under the age of 16 years.
EU member states have the option to adopt a lower age, but it must be set no lower than 13. The Government opened a consultation on the age issue last November but the outcome has not been published.
Dr Shannon told the committee many of the issues in the new data-protection regime would have a “profound impact” on children and he said the views of, at the very least, a focus group of children here must be garnered before a decision was made.
He believed the State should designate the lowest permissible age – namely 13 – as the age of digital consent for this jurisdiction.
This lower digital age of consent had also been recommended by children’s organisations such as the Children’s Rights Alliance.
The special rapporteur noted the aim of the EU regulation in setting a digital age of consent was to protect young people from commercial online marketing providers, for instance social media and gaming platforms.
“The current situation, whereby the same data practices are being used to target teenagers as those used to target adults, is absolutely unacceptable and needs to be tackled,” he said.
While there was a genuine need, and indeed an obligation, to protect children from the dangers of the internet, the State “must ensure that it does not unreasonably restrict children’s civil and political rights such as the right to freedom of information and expression”, he said.
He noted there had been instances internationally where internet service providers had been pressured by state authorities to block websites containing material that was argued to be unsuitable for under 18s.
“Yet some of the sites contain material which could be important for the wellbeing of many under-18s, such as material on sex education, politics and support groups for alcohol dependency and suicide,” he said.
Dr Shannon said restricting internet usage for children, for instance by setting the digital age of consent at 16, should “be approached with caution and the varying rights at play must be borne in mind”.
The special rapporteur also emphasised the importance of a “right to be forgotten”, or right to erasure under the EU regulation, in terms of things children might post online but might later come to regret.